GTA V Shows the Immaturity of Game Criticism

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It’s a well-established assertion that the video game industry is, by and large, in the midst of its adolescent years. It can’t really be helped considering that games have largely been limited by technology since their inception, and have only recently acquired a serious level of study and, in some cases, finances to even be considered by those outside of the culture as a legitimate means of artistic and literary expression. It seems that all new mediums must eventually go through this awkward stage of development before they can fully become accepted or even revered. immaturity

Take television and film, or impressionist paintings for that matter; all were once criticized as not constituting real art when they were in their early years. Now we see paintings by Van Gogh sell for millions and movies such as Citizen Kane and TV shows like M*A*S*H are considered true masterpieces of literary art. This isn’t to say that our medium is without its lauded classics.  Masterpieces such as Ocarina of Time and Half-Life 2 are constantly cited as true works of art, even by those outside of the industry, while games like Braid and Journey (or anything by thatgamecompany for that matter) are winning BAFTA’s and Grammies left and right. While these strides are admirable and are almost certainly a sign of a bright future for our beloved medium, we still have a long way to go, and perhaps no facet of gaming culture is lagging farther behind than that of game critique. 


I could ramble on and on about how poor business strategies and quick cash grabs on the part of publishers are hurting the industry or how the national media still portrays games as toys designed for children, but these topics have been discussed to death; besides, I’d much rather ramble on about something more topical, as well as something many people seem to have overlooked; something that has to do with Grand Theft Auto V since that’s what everybody seems to be preoccupied with lately.

GTA V was of course released about two weeks ago to both critical and financial success: breaking 800 million dollars in 24 hours as well as being cited by many critics as the new “gold-standard” of gaming. Many critics praised the game for its critique of the “American Dream” and its endearing, yet utterly loathsome, protagonists, though one thing seemed to sour their taste of this video game ambrosia: a single mission entitled “By the Books. (Minor spoilers incoming).

For those who don’t know, “By the Books” is a mission in GTA V that places the player in the role of a man torturing another man to gain some critical information for some crooked government agents. During the course of this scene you are able to pick between a small array of methods for inflicting pain upon your victim. You can rip a tooth out with pliers, bash his kneecaps in with a huge monkey wrench, water board him, or electrify him. The scene plays out as a sort of mini game in which you input various commands with your controller to cause the man to scream in agony. After you’ve extinguished all available methods of torture, the game is over and you are ordered to kill the man.

gta v by the book screenshot

While I haven’t actually played the scene myself, I have seen it played out by several other people and I can honestly say that it is quite brutal and difficult to watch. However, the most interesting thing about this section of the game is than many critics and reviewers, who otherwise felt that the game was great, scorned this particular scene saying it was “in bad taste”, or weakened the overall merit of GTA V; some even went so far as to say that the mission should have been removed from the final version of the game entirely. While I can respect an honest assessment of a literary work, I have to disagree wholeheartedly: I think that the scene in question was tastefully executed, cringe-inducingly profound, and above all else only strengthened the impact of an already marvelous title.

I think that the reaction from some of these critics stems from the general public and the national media’s view of the gaming industry as a whole. While literature and films are constantly lauded for tackling such dark and touchy subjects, video games are actively discouraged from pursuing such explorations. The problem I see with the method in which a few reviewers criticized this particular scene is that it seems to imply that there are some subjects in which video games just shouldn’t touch. A couple of the reviews I read stated that it was merely the fact that this scene was player controlled that sickened them and had it been just a cutscene would have been more tolerable. So, you’re basically saying that this type of subject should only be approached in a non-interactive way. Doesn’t that just further the agenda of those who wish to censor games? Making an aesthetic assessment that you don’t like a particular scene is one thing, but flat-out stating that games should eschew certain subjects entirely is another.

GTA V screen

This is an issue that has popped up quite a bit as of late, but few people have seemed to notice. More and more it seems as though game critics are reacting negatively towards violence in games in a feeble attempt to show the legitimacy of the medium to the general public; it’s as if each line shaming “By the Book” is a merely a thinly veiled plea to the likes of Jack Thompson or the idiots on Fox News saying: “see, we [game critics] don’t like violence either; violence can’t be artistic, therefore we shame the creators who designed the game; we want everything to be all sunshine and puppy-dog farts just like you do!” You get the point.

Hyperbole aside, this type of scorn directed toward violence in video games really only hurts our industry, ironically making it seem less legitimate. While I’d say criticizing games like the Postal series for their depictions of extreme violence may be justifiable in the sense that they exist merely for cathartic purposes rather than in an attempt to make a specific point, I don’t think it’s fair to say that GTA V’s torture scene was in bad taste. After all, the scene itself was clearly a critique of the use of torture as a means of gathering intelligence used by the FBI and CIA. Hell after the scene is over and you’re ordered to kill the man, your character refuses to do so and instead drives him to the airport so he can go into hiding; during the brief drive your character comments on how ineffective torture actually is and how its only real purpose is to sate the violent cravings of the person who’s doing the torturing.

GTA V screen1

What really gets me about this is that many of the same individuals who scorned this mission were also quick to point out the cultural critique Rockstar had interlaid into the scene. So, you’re telling me that you guys get what the developers were doing—that they intentionally crafted a scene that would disturb players and get them to actually think about a real world tactic likely employed by their own government—and then you turn around and say that “it was in bad taste” or “should have been removed from the final game”. I just don’t get you’re reasoning their guys.

To me, this whole ordeal does nothing more than demonstrate yet another facet of gaming culture that has yet to grow up—that of critique—and I honestly don’t think video games will reach the point of legitimacy enjoyed by more established media until we are ready to submit them to the same level of scrutiny and contemplation. Things also won’t get any better until reviewers and critics stop treating games as merely a form of entertainment and start discussing them in terms of their cultural impact and artistic design. Games don’t need to be fun. We have plenty of entertaining games, but not enough engaging games. There’s a lot more ground for our medium to cover and a whole host of subjects yet to explore. Slowly but surely the industry is moving forward; I just wish it would move a little faster, that’s all.

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  • Jo

    So another jab at Fox News. Way to jump on bandwagon.
    What about “Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best

    Or Ed Shultz on MSNBC saying parents are lousy for buying this game for their kids?
    Are these two also idiots?
    Don’t you think there is a difference in a simulator versus a video game?

    • Noah Bradley

      Sure I think there is a difference between a simulation and a video game, but this isn’t a simulation, it’s an interactive moment designed to further the game’s narrative and provide character development to the deranged character Trevor. Simulations by their very nature are designed for training purposes and have no narrative.

      The idea that “By the Book” is somehow a simulation is just ridiculous. While I respect Keith Best’s view on the matter and understand where he is coming from I don’t think that he is correct in asserting that torture is a subject that should never be explored within the realms of fiction. That said, if there were somehow an actual “torture simulation” that existed for the sole purpose of training individuals in methods of torture I’d be behind Mr. Best’s argument 100%.

      Rockstar’s goal was to get a rise out of the player. The scene was meant to disgust the view; it was meant to make them think. This is what I want to see more of in video games, moments that make you think about topics present in the real world.